THE history of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art is told in a new ‘milestone’ exhibition inside the grand city centre landmark.

Stones Steeped in History charts significant dates in the development of the Royal Exchange Square site, which has been a home, a bank, an exchange and a library in the past.

The display does not shy away from the murkier elements of Glasgow’s past, as a city built on wealth acquired through slavery and selling addictive tobacco, sugar and alcohol.

The exhibition, created for the building’s two balconies, also includes important milestones in the cultural development of Glasgow.

Glasgow Life chairman Councillor David McDonald said: “Stones Steeped in History shares a few of this historic building’s stories, including its undeniable ties to slavery.

“This exhibition records some of the key events in the cultural development of Glasgow.

“Importantly it continues to tell the story of Glasgow’s links to the slave trade, by providing a fuller appreciation of the part slavery played in the narrative of the city and how important that is not only to the past, but also to the future.”

Steeped in History tells the story from 1777, when the original building was commissioned as a mansion for tobacco merchant, William Cunninghame, until the present day.

It includes images of beautiful old photographs, watercolours and postcards, as well as nostalgic images of Glasgow throughout the years.

It begins with a brief account of the life of William Cunninghame and moves through times of great wealth, created by international trade.

The building’s first commercial purpose was as a bank around 40 years later, and it became Glasgow’s Royal Exchange in 1827. Here, for more than 100 years, businessmen gathered to trade cotton, sugar, coal and iron.

Many, like Exchange founder James Ewing of Strathleven, owned or profited from the labour of slaves on the sugar and tobacco plantations in the American colonies and West Indies.

The display continues with innovations such as one of Glasgow’s first telephone exchanges, which was housed in the building from 1880; and it records the iconic Duke of Wellington statue being erected outside in 1884. (The traffic cone arrived much later…)

Glasgow Corporation purchased the building in 1954. Its first civic use was as a library, containing both the Stirling and Commercial Library collections.

Stones Steeped in History then chronicles the building’s key role in Glasgow’s rise as a centre for art and culture, which began in the 1970s.

Councillor McDonald explained: “By then, Glasgow had a reputation as a tough city, but always running alongside this has been a history of innovation and creativity.

“In the 1970s, Glasgow City Council recognised how culture could be used to re-frame the city’s reputation. The first major project was the creation of a new museum to hold Sir William Burrell’s gift to the city – his collection of more than 9000 objects.”

The Burrell Collection opened in 1983, to international acclaim. The Garden Festival followed in 1988, attracting four million visitors and in 1990 Glasgow won the title of European Capital of Culture, changing its cultural standing forever.

Glasgow and the artists who have emerged from it are now acknowledged around the world and the city boasts one of the finest civic art collections in Europe.

The Mitchell Library opened in 1911, incorporating much of the book collection housed in the building.

Stirling’s Library remained until work began on the Gallery of Modern Art in 1994. GoMA opened in 1996, under the leadership of then Director of Museums Julian Spalding.

Curators continue to collect and commission work by artists with a Glasgow connection.

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